Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

The patzer’s opening

It is truly astounding to me, as a master-strength player who’s been wise to such traps for more than three and a half decades, to see how much beginners’ chess literature counsels its readers to attempt the Scholar’s Mate; it almost might as well advise the Fool’s Mate (1. g4, e5; 2. f3??, Qh4#), because to lose against this opening requires only slightly less ineptitude.


Not only does this article recommend a terrible opening, but the kings and queens are set up wrong. The rule is
“Queen on her color.”
[ Image Source ]

To translate the suggested moves into the algebraic notation now almost universal to all chess publications, white opens with 1. e3 or 1. e4 (here the article suggests e3 as safer, but actually e4 offers more active play if your opponent doesn’t fall into the trap); black responds with, perhaps, 1. ...e5; white continues with 2. Qf3; black replies 2. ...Nc6; and after white’s 3. Bc4, black misses his last chance to defend and makes some move that fails to defend against white’s threatened 4. Qxf7 mate.

I do not recommend trying this. Most players with more than three games behind them will not only avoid getting mated, but will seize the initiative and very probably win the game with it.

Instead, I can only suggest that there is no substitute for learning to play chess right, and no shortcut to victory. Study some actual chess openings — you might begin with the Ruy Lopez and the Giuoco Piano if you intend to open with 1. e4. Be aware, however, that your opponent can reply with moves other than 1. ...e5, and prepare for this as well; at the least, you will also want to learn something about the French Defense, the Sicilian, the Caro-Kann, the Alekhine, the Scandinavian, the Pirc and the Modern, not to mention comparatively offbeat lines such as the Nimzovich and Owen’s Defense. Then you can move on to learning how to defend with black against various white openings, including the Queen’s Gambit, the English Opening, the Reti Opening and the Orangutan (or Sokolsky) among many others.

As you study and practice your openings (which you will eventually need to know to survive into the middle game), bear in mind the two principal objectives of that phase of the game: to develop (bring pieces out) smoothly, and to control the central squares d4, e4, d5 and e5. When in doubt, try to make moves that accord with these principles, and you have a decent chance of entering the next phase in one piece.

Here, in the middlegame, is where there is no substitute for simply playing and playing ... and playing some more. Gradually, you will come to understand what sort of play various positions that typically arise from each opening will call for. This is the most complicated part of the game, and tactics often abound; be wary, and remember that when strategy and tactics clash, tactics must take precedence.

If you can negotiate the thickets of the middlegame, and you and your opponent reach a fairly level position with few pieces left, you have attained the final phase, called the endgame. This, too, demands study as well as play: There are certain patterns you will need to recognize in the various kinds of endings that can appear which are not necessarily intuitive, and not knowing about them could cost you an otherwise well-earned victory.

If you really want to learn to play chess, there are books, online chess clubs, instructors and other resources to be found all over the internet as well as, very probably, in your hometown. Use as many of these as you deem appropriate in whatever combination works for you. But don’t play the Scholar’s Mate.

Originally published as a critical review of a article offering some bad advice on chess. Update: As of 12 April 2015, the article no longer exists.

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